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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Ask the Dust": Hard luck and passion in '30s Los Angeles

Seattle Times movie critic

John Fante's 1939 novel "Ask the Dust" is the sort of book you read in one sitting, caught up in its breathless flow of words. It's the first-person narrative of a young Italian-American writer, Arturo Bandini, who arrives in Depression-era Los Angeles — a city he calls "you sad flower in the sand" — to seek his fortune. In a tired hotel, he quickly goes broke. Spending his last nickel on a cup of coffee, he meets a Mexican waitress, Camilla Lopez, and falls in love with her. It's not a sweet romance: Burdened by his own memories of racial taunting ("the quivering of an old wound"), he turns his anger on her, and she throws it back in his face. The story cannot end happily, and indeed, it doesn't.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Ask the Dust," with Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins, Idina Menzel, Justin Kirk. Written and directed by Robert Towne, based on the novel by John Fante. 117 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality, nudity and language. Uptown.

Writer/director Robert Towne (author of "Chinatown," "Shampoo" and "The Last Detail," among others) has reportedly been working on the film version of "Ask the Dust" for 30 years, including many discussions of the screenplay with Fante, who died in 1983. The resulting film, flawed but fascinating, reflects that dedication. Although the film's final third sharply veers from the book's direction and into a different and somewhat prettier tragedy, the spirit of Towne's film feels true to Fante's words. Like the book, it seems to shimmer and linger, like a sunset on a beach.

Colin Farrell, as Bandini, is in full movie-star mode here; he's playing a man in love with words, and seems to savor every one. This charismatic Irish actor, who until recently seemed to be making a career out of being the best thing in not-so-good movies, has a physical grace on screen that's rare these days; he saunters and strolls and at one point hops off a trolley car, supremely confident that the earth will meet his feet. He and the beautiful Hayek create a fiery chemistry; you believe in this couple's troubled bond, even as their fights begin to seem a bit familiar. (Fante's book is brief, almost a novella; the movie feels just a tad overlong.)

Though the romantic melodrama eventually becomes too much, "Ask the Dust" retains our interest with its many grace notes: the cigarettes rolled out of tissue paper (a detail from the novel); the dim, filtered-through-blinds light of Arturo's hotel room; the smoky restaurant with a cat on the bar; the wry disinterest of the landlady (played, with perfect dryness, by Eileen Atkins); the worn-soft '30s costumes; the gentle way the camera lingers on Hayek, late in the film. As a film, "Ask the Dust" is uneven; as a labor of love, it's a beauty.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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